Let me go straight to the point. Not unless there are swift interventions to arrest the situation, African cinema as we have known it- if it ever existed- is on the deathbed.
By African Cinema, I mean all the African classics produced from whichever sort of funding- may it government, NGOs or otherwise. Films that have been released, not with a market in mind but as long as there was someone paying the bills.
Great films by Gaston KaborĂ© and even Nigerian legend animator Mustapha Alassane oh yes, and that's great we should celebrate. Award winning pieces like Drum created by Zola Maseko in South alright but who has watched any of them? I have watched Drum. This great film, easily draws you into it and has your attention throughout but that does not change the sad situation on the ground: African cinema has only been for a few festival goers' privileged artists who receive invites for the few private screenings mostly held in the foreign cultural centers in African cities.
Lests face the facts. In the last five or so decades, African filmmakers little effort to created a sustainable film industry- everyone is very busy amassing funding for their projects. This way, the few cinema halls throughout the continent collapsed, there were no spaces to exhibit.
The few that remained were mostly foreign owned, screened movies that they wanted to market to Africans. Most of this time, the African filmmakers was very busy looking for funding, producing movies that would end up under their pillows. There was not any time to invite art marketers to whip Africans into consuming their films. In most cases, there was not even an attempt to screen these films to paying masses, where this was attempted, it only lasted very briefly.
In this vacuum, Hollywood movies- which have obviously been a low quality affair- entrenched themselves into the market. Indian movies joined later, first through TV dramas and finally here they have a base.
What happens when the funding dries or has it already?
Death of African cinema
Flow of my thoughts on the looming death of traditional African Cinema continue. At this point, the stream of funding that African cinema has thrived on is no longer flowing. Filmmakers must get innovative if they have to remain afloat in this new reality. Having churned out a few titles, only screened at the Fespaco, Kenya International Film Festival, Durban Film Festival, or Ziff or Cannes, some of the ``big names`` finally bow out of the stage. A few resilient ones adapt to survive through the stretch. It's a new exciting dawn of African Cinema. We might want to call it neo/African cinema or another sexier name.
In Nigeria, a new crop of filmmaker stop lamenting government indifference to cinema, roll their cameras and what comes out makes irrelevant the rest of the traditional African cinema still gathering dust under the pillows. In Kenya, some serious businessmen identify a growth opportunity and wastes no time.
Unlike earlier Kenyan producers who relied on donor money, this generation of Riverwood filmmakers invests some little cash, must work hard to recoup their investment even if that means hawking the films, shouting about them on radio, TV even on Facebook.
A lot of what is churned is very poor quality but the fact that Kenyans have not had opportunity to watch much of their own, they are spending that shilling and loving most of the comedies.
The other group of producers, provoked by the Riverwood producers, bring down their budgets and on location they are. Films of all genres, all standards are coming through.
The scenario is similar in Uganda where Video halls are more than excited to screen Ugandan films; several video libraries are stocking them; distributors are lining up for the deal to control distribution.
The South Africans are on the go. Thanks to good regulatory framework, filming skills acquired hands-on and enviable infrastructure created by Hollywood producers and others who have been regularly shooting, brilliant movies that can compete anywhere are coming out. Because films are meant to be screened, there are some low end cinemas entering the market. Already there are films available on DVDs that are doing rounds.
West Africans have this attachment to artistic films. The reality says otherwise. That is artistic movies yes but who says Cine halls that are spread throughout the cities cannot screen these. There are indications that many West Africans love watching their movies. This offers another growth opportunity even after funding has dried. Isn't this exciting?
And not yet. African film distributors finally interlin all the Cine halls, others call them video halls, Kideos, Bibabdas- and an industry gradually begin to crystallize. But there is still a challenge. Branding the halls as safe places where film enthusiasts can walk in, enjoy and evening or an afternoon of African films and safely go home.
by Mwenda wa Micheni
Paper edited in Bulletin AfricinĂ© nÂ°10 (Ouagadougou), 5th March 2009, and Bulletin AfricinĂ© nÂ°11 (Ouagadougou), 7th March 2009, during the Fespaco 2009.
Bulletin published by the African Federation of Film Critics (AFFC, Dakar), with the support of MinistĂ¨re de la Culture, du Tourisme et de la Communication (Burkina Faso), FESPACO, Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF, Paris), MinistĂ¨re des Affaires EtrangĂ¨res (France), Centro Orientamento Educativo (COE, Milan) and Rurart (Poitou Charentes, France)